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Planning a Simulator Study

by Ray Oyung

February 11, 1998

A Congressional request was presented to NASA Ames Research Center in 1980 to investigate safety issues with pilot fatigue in transmeridian flight.

In response to this request, the NASA Ames Fatigue/Jet Lag Program was created to collect systematic, scientific information on fatigue, sleep, circadian rhythms, and performance in flight operations. Three program goals were established and continue to guide research efforts: to determine the extent of fatigue, sleep loss and circadian disruption in flight operations; to determine the impact of these factors on flight crew performance; and to develop and evaluate countermeasures to mitigate the adverse effects of these factors and maximize flight crew performance and alertness

In 1991, the name of the program was changed to the Fatigue Countermeasures Program to provide a greater emphasis on the development and evaluation of countermeasures.

Currently, the program is in the process of designing a simulation study to see what can be done to help pilots stay alert during the times when most of us are asleep. With so many "red eye" commercial flights and overnight packages that absolutely, positively must be at the destination the following day, this issue of alertness management becomes more important.

Our group just met again today to talk about scheduling, staffing, and equipment requirements for this study. Boeing 747-400 pilots need to be recruited to "fly" the full motion simulator which looks like a big white box on the outside standing about 20 feet above the floor with a bunch of hydraulic arms that connect the box to the ground. Hundreds of wires connect the box to computers in another room that run the simulator. Inside, this box looks just like the flight deck of a Boeing 747-400 parked on the ramp at an airport. All the controls, glass displays, knobs, and furniture are exactly what you'd see in the real thing. This type of simulator is used in flight training facilities to train/familiarize pilots into different types of airplanes. If sitting inside while fully operational, the simulator feels just like you're inside a real airplane. The hydraulics provide signals to the kinesthetic and vestibular systems. The monitors depict a view 180 degrees of what would be seen outside. The computers generate graphics that look so real that even if the simulator were not in motion and someone was flying, you'd have a tendency to lean over when turning!

The simulator is an invaluable tool that we can use to assist us in answering the questions we may have on a specific research project without the danger of harming someone or something in the air or on the ground.

In our study, we want to see how effective a countermeasure will be to assist a pilot in maintaining alertness during a flight at night between two and eight o'clock in the morning. Several factors play a role in alertness during a flight this time of night. How many hours has the pilot been awake before this flight? Has the pilot been on a night work schedule or day work schedule over the last few weeks? How old is this person? Does this person tend to be more of a morning type or an evening type?

No matter what the background is of the individual, we are looking at ways to help all pilots maintain vigilance during these times when most of us are asleep.


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